I’ve heard this countless times both inside and outside the therapy office: “I’m just not that empathic.” This is frequently said with exasperation and a big sigh as clients and friends struggle to put themselves in others’ shoes. In our world, you’re seeing a lack of empathy as a critical component to conflict resolution and problem solving skills among our nation’s leaders.
Empathy, empathetic, and an empath are all terms that can describe the ability to put oneself into another’s shoes. The ability to step outside your own perspective and understand why someone else would think differently. The ability to sit with someone in the darkest of times. One of the most vulnerable skills we could practice with others. Practicing empathy forces us to tap into the big emotions that we sometimes refrain from experiencing in order to relate and support someone else.
Empathy is a practice. A skill. It’s something you can learn to do. You can learn to respond with empathy. You can learn to put empathy in place with certain people. You can become intentional about practicing this as a skill. Being empathetic is a description of a character trait. “She’s so empathetic.” This is used to describe someone who frequently practices empathy--probably someone that you think is just nice, a good friend, or someone you feel connected and supported by. You feel heard by this person. An empath, then, is someone who feels things very deeply. This person can pick up on other people’s states or energy because they are constantly challenging themselves to see the world from how the person they are interacting with at a given time sees it.
Most people will confuse empathy with sympathy. The difference here is the following:
Sympathy: “I feel so bad that that happened to you.” -
Empathy: “Losing your mother is really hard, and I know how difficult loss feels. I’m here with you.”
Think back to a time when you felt the most supported by your partner, your coworkers, or your family and friends. What did they say that made you feel most supported?
Did they shower you with advice and what you “should” do? Did they tell you how sorry they feel for you? Or were they simply present with you? Did they ask you how they could help and tell you that they were there for you?
Sympathy is watching someone fall down and telling them how bad it is falling. Empathy is crawling to the ground to lie down with them after they’ve fallen.
LOVE is a quick acronym to practice empathy. It’s a helpful reminder that I’ve put together to help myself and my clients remember how to respond to someone who is hurting.
L - Listen
We need to do a better job of listening to understand rather than listening to reply. Trying to understand where the person is, what s/he is feeling and what their experience is like requires us to hear their words so we can understand.
O - Observe
Practicing empathy can be HARD because we have to first observe what our own experience is like. We have to connect with hurt we’ve felt in the past to help meet someone else in their hurt in the moment. This can feel hard. It’s ok to admit, “Wow, that is really hard, and I don’t know what to say right now, but I am here with you.”
V - Validate
Validating means to acknowledge and reflect back what someone just said. It means that you are hearing them, listening, and understanding what they are saying and that their emotions and experience is valid. It does not mean you have to agree with what they are saying. By validating, you are simply acknowledging and giving someone the permission to feel emotions. We all need validation. It provides a powerful connection within relationships.
E - Empathically respond
The response is a reflection of everything you just heard. We listen to respond, not to just reply with the first thing or piece of advice that pops in our head. By saying, “That sounds really difficult. I’ve felt defeated and inadequate and I know how hard that is. I’m here for you.” Here, you are not trying to solve this person’s experience or problem or give them advice (we all know we are the best advice-givers but cannot seem to take our own!). You are sitting with them in their feeling and walking with them through it instead of trying to drag them out of it.
Remember: empathy is a practice. It’s a skill. You can practice empathy without being “an empathetic person”. The willingness to meet someone where they are at is the first step to practicing empathy. If you’re willing, you’re halfway there.
Robin Helget, LSCSW